MARION — The Southern Illinois Miners weren’t bad last year.
The Miners finished the Frontier League season with a winning record. However, the team failed to qualify for the playoffs.
In manager Mike Pinto’s world, not bad isn’t good enough.
The veteran manager, in his 13th year at Marion, set about rebuilding the team. Two key acquisitions are slugger Chris Iriart and right-handed starter Chase Cunningham. Iriart, playing for the now defunct Normal CornBelters, led the Frontier League in home runs last year. Cunningham, formerly of the Washington Wild Things, has been one of the league’s top starters for the past three seasons.
Iriart will bat in the heart of the Miners’ order and Cunningham gets the ball tonight in the season-opener at Evansville.
“I know we’re a better team than we were a year ago,” Pinto said. “We have better flexibility. Our pitching depth is greater. I think we have more topside guys. We have more experience playing on the field than we did last year.
“I like where we’re at at this point. We know things change. Guys get hurt. Guys get picked up. Guys don’t perform. But, where we are leaving spring training right now, I like it a lot.”
Getting a bat with some pop was a priority for Pinto. The Miners main power source last year, catcher Chance Shepherd, is no longer in baseball.
“First of all, we’ll be significantly better on offense,” Pinto said. “This is a team that is going to score runs. We have more pop. Last year we had Shep. That was really about it. If we didn’t get a homer from Shep, we probably weren’t going to get one.”
In their final exhibition this week, the Miners got a pair of homers, one from Iriart and another from catcher Andy Cosgrove. With the loss of Shepherd, shoring up the catcher’s spot was another Pinto priority.
Cosgrove and Arturo Nieto will share the position this year.
“In my ideal world, we have two really strong catchers,” Pinto said. “Not a really strong one and then, ohhh, we take a step back. You know what our heat is here and, playing on turf, we really wanted two guys. We really like both guys. They both going to get a lot of time. It’s not like a one and a two.”
Another strength this year is maturity and experience.
“We have some guys that have been playing a long time,” Pinto said. “(Gianfranco) Wawoe, this is his eighth year of pro ball, (Alex) Santana, his sixth. We’ve got guys that have been around a while. That leads not only to a maturity on the field, but in the clubhouse. We have a professional clubhouse in there. There are no childhood antics. We’ve got a bunch of guys that act like professionals. They prepare before and after like we hoped.
“I want guys that love playing the game. I don’t want guys just going through the motions. I want guys that are good teammates, guys that will buy into something bigger than ‘It’s all about me.’ I want all those factors to come in. We did a lot of homework to get these guys.”
Defensively, the Miners should be solid. And, several players, Kyle Davis and Santana particularly can play a lot of positions. In terms of speed, the Miners aren’t a track team, but have good overall speed.
Pinto has some minor concerns about pitching. He hasn’t settled on a pitching rotation just yet, largely because Stephen Ridings, one of the team’s top pitchers last year, felt some discomfort throwing this spring. And, like every other manager in baseball, Pinto would like another left-hander.
“I’d really like another lefty match-up guy,” he said. “(Kelvin) Rodriguez is really good from the left side and will give lefties fits. I’d really like one more. But, it would really have to be the right guy because we really like the arms right now.”
After a week on the road, the Miners open at home May 17.